Mike Stoltz is an experimental filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He recently finished his M.F.A. at CalArts and is involved in the local filmmaking community through the Echo Park Film Center. I recently met Stoltz while billeting him for the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival; his most recent film, Under the Atmosphere (2014) debuted as part of the festival’s Wavelengths series. This interview is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place over coffee.
Clint Enns: How did you begin making films?
Mike Stoltz: I was making music and hosting shows at a warehouse where I lived in Gainesville, Florida called The Ark. I was starting to feel limited by only doing music, so I began to work visually: making collages, screen printing, etc. I was looking for an art form that captured the energy and immediate gratification of live music but that didn’t require as much collaboration. Fortunately, a young filmmaker named Roger Beebe approached the warehouse about holding screenings at our space since the venue he had been using wasn’t getting as broad of an audience as he thought he could. Of course we agreed [to host the screenings] since this meant we would get whatever beer was left over in the keg at the end of the night. Seeing this work [small gauge, experimental] in a DIY venue had a huge impact on me: not necessarily the work at the time, but more the methodology, the DIY ethos; the fact that you could set up for a film screening 30 minutes before you opened the doors and it could look good.
CE: This seems directly related to how you produce work. That is, some of your works, in particular In Between (2006), With Pluses and Minuses (2013) and Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day (2012), are not only meant to be shown in a theatrical environment, but in alternative spaces and in between bands.
MS: The loud works are intended to be seen this way. On occasion, I also do projector performances that are meant to be shown only one-time. Just having a 16mm projector in the room, with all of its mechanical (im)perfections, adds to the momentum of the film… it transforms it into a performance. It is also magical when you are using loose sync (sound that is played separate from the projected image) and the images and the sounds meet up.
CE: All of your films seem to contain an element of performance. For instance, in Under the Atmosphere you sing and play the drum with your hand from behind the camera and in Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day you play the bass from behind the camera.
MS: With Ten Notes, I was interested in exploring the tension between on screen and off screen space. Everything was recorded live, so you can hear the off-screen sound of traffic and birds chirping. When the bass begins, my friend Sílvia Das Fadas attempts to mimic the bass sounds on screen. I spent a lot of time thinking about the composition within the frame and about how the sounds reflect the visual composition. For me, these types of performances were a way of being present in the films and a way of thinking through the space behind the camera, which starts with my early hand-held spinning camera films.
CE: That makes sense, In Between and With Pluses and Minuses are a different type of performance film, a documentation of a performance that takes place behind the camera. In these films you use your body to perform a gesture with the camera resulting in a kinetic image that destabilizes the viewer’s sense of space. This is related to a re-occurring cinematic strategy that you use in your work: the destabilization of space through the alternation of the front and back of an object. For instance, in In Between, you alternate between the front and the back of a wall that contains rectangular holes; in With Pluses and Minuses, you use a wall that contains circular holes; and in Underneath the Atmosphere, you use a massive circular structure. Can you talk about this strategy?
MS: With In Between and With Pluses and Minuses, I felt it was important to get the camera off of my eye in order to see in a different way. In addition, both films are designed to be projected large, to augment or interfere with the shape of the room they are projected in.
CE: They also contain frames within frames. By shooting through different types of holes, you create a space within a space. Do you view In Between and With Pluses and Minuses as abstract animations?
MS: In fact, I view these films as inverse animations. They invert the process of working on an animation stand where the image is moving and the camera is stable. They instead depict an immobile wall with an unstable camera. They are single frame films, not animations.
CE: Underneath the Atmosphere is an ominous film, connecting Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune) to modern day Cape Canaveral. How is the band’s (John Almaraz [guitar], Anna Luisa Petrisko [drummer], and Mike Stoltz [singer]) performance related to rest of the film?
MS: I treat the text (“What It Is Impossible to Know and What It Is No Longer Permissible to Believe in the United States”) as an object/image by holding it up to the sky and letting light reflect off of it. The singer – or the audience since it is shot in first person – repeats this text, transforming the image into performance. The film is an attempt to bring future, past and present into the same temporal relationship. The text itself is antiquated in one sense, but incredibly predictive in another. I think the film raises the question, where does present tense lie? Moreover, where does tense lie within a 16mm film, a medium that is quite different than video, which can be instantaneous.
CE: Since the performance is in first person it seems to bring us into the present tense. Plus, who hasn’t dreamt of being the lead singer in a band?
MS: Exactly, but it is also important to note that we didn’t practice the song before the camera was rolling. We simply checked our sound levels and looked at some images from the film, improvising the song, which once again suggests the present tense – improvisation/real time composition.
CE: Are those the three photographs on the wall?
MS: Yeah. They are black and white Polaroids from locations in the film. We looked at them before we started to play and then I taped them to the wall.
CE: Given that they are photographs, there seems to be a play between still and moving images. Also, the next shot is of waves. Is this a reference to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), in which a camera zooms into a still photograph of waves?
MS: Yes, this is what I imagine happens in Wavelength.
CE: Do you do all of your own sound design? Can you talk about the sound in your films?
MS: At home, I have a small sound station set-up with a four-track cassette recorder. I view sound recording as my sketchbook practice. With moving images, I usually need downtime between shooting. There are also many similarities between using cassette tape and shooting on film. They are both linear, tactile mediums.
The sound in In Between is from a cassette of sounds recorded around the same area where the images were taken. I also generated foley by dragging pieces of metal across the ground – in essence, heavily manipulated field recordings. With Pluses and Minuses, I used mixer feedback to create an aural replication of the shot / reverse shot structure. There is also a broken Casio keyboard. I like the challenge of working with available equipment like my ten-year-old four-track cassette recorder and the phaser pedal I found cleaning up beer bottles after a show, which someone left behind and never claimed.
CE: Is Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day a Crass reference?
MS: You know it! Their “unlistenable” last album… too much piano for the punks.
CE: What are you working on now?
MS: At the moment, I am editing another Florida film. This one is about hurricanes, concrete, and things that have washed away in the last fifteen years or so. There are other projects I am thinking about right now but I am afraid of jinxing them by going into detail.